The Chumash – First Nation

Residents for More than 13,000 Years

Any history of Santa Barbara County, California – however brief – must begin with our First Nation people, the Chumash. Their society – sophisticated, spiritual, artistic, enduring – extends for more than 7000 square miles throughout areas now known as San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, as well as a part of northern Los Angeles County.

At the turn of the previous century, there were no protections for indigenous cultural items found in and around Santa Barbara County, or anywhere else. As the Chumash lived for 13,000 years in Southern California, the trove of cultural artifacts, holy sites, and the bones of their ancestors was immense. Anthropologists pillaged the area in the name of research and study, with little regard for the living culture.

In 1907, in the bulletin, Bureau of American Ethnology, Vol. 6, published by the Smithsonian Institution, includes information about Chumash society on page 296.

According to the Santa Ynez Valley Band of Chumash – History page, about 22,000 Chumash were living in communities among the hills, in the valleys, along pristine seashores, and in a number of settlements on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. They have always been hunters, gatherers, seafarers, artists, sophisticated stewards of land, sea, flora, and fauna of Santa Barbara County, California.

The Spanish

Following a number of Spanish expeditions, a contingent of their militia established a presidio in Santa Barbara in 1782. They were ensuring dominance over the indigenous people, allowing the Franciscan padres to establish 21 Catholic missions from San Diego northward to Sonoma. They also authorized a few enormous Spanish land grants – hundreds of thousands of acres each – to favored individuals. The missions were built by Chumash forced into unpaid labor and made to comply with foreign religious dictates. Brutality and European diseases took their toll. In fewer than 50 years the Chumash population that had lived in the region for more than 13,000 years was reduced by about 80%.

Eventually, the Spanish struggled to supply goods and government support to their military or the Franciscans in California from their European base.

The Mexicans

In 1821, Mexico, also under the rule of Spanish colonizers, revolted in a bid for independence. The Spanish had lost interest in the area and the military withdrew, leaving behind several powerful Spanish military leaders and their families as prominent citizens of Santa Barbara County. When Mexico won their freedom, Spain secularized the missions.

Mexico expanded its holdings, claiming a large area of the southwest as Alta California. They, too, distributed land grants, though in greater numbers. These large ranchos, 600 of them, were given to Mexican citizens or other foreigners who were favored by local governors.

When Mexico claimed Alta California, they promised to return mission lands to the Chumash, but did not make good on that promise.

The Americans

Like Spain, Mexico had difficulty ruling their large official holdings, as Mexico’s capitol lay a hard 2000 miles away. The situation worsened when the Mexican-American War began in 1846. In December 1847, General John C Fremont arrived in Santa Barbara to lay claim to the area on behalf of the United States of America. By April, 1848, the Mexican-American war ended; California was then administered by the US until official statehood was granted in 1850.

By 1920, generations of disease, racism, and brutality had reduced the Chumash culture almost to extinction. In the 1930s, Mary J. Yee (née Rowe) and Lucrecia García (née Ygnacio), worked closely with linguist John Harrington, to capture the sounds and meanings of the Barbareño language, the very breath of Chumash culture.

Chumash Culture – Visit Santa Ynez Chumash Pow Wow 2022

Today, there are 14 bands of Chumash living in California. Santa Barbara County’s First People, more than 5000 strong, continue to thrive and evolve. They are active in local educational activities, and share indigenous culture and wisdom with others.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Inter-Tribal Pow Wow will be held on October 1 – 2, 2022, at the corner of Meadowvale and Highway 246, in Santa Ynez, California. In 2015, the Santa Ynez Chumash held their first pow wow in 1965 to bring running water to residents who lived on the reservation. The 2015 video, Santa Ynez Chumash Pow Wow, provides the history of the event.

Anthropologists Study Chumash Culture – The 1920s

In the 1920s, AL Krober was considered to be the ultimate authority on indigenous people of California. Educated at Columbia University, he was awarded the first doctorate in anthropology by the university. As a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, Krober’s work included helping to develop the museum of anthropology on campus. He was honored with a building the university named after him, Krober Hall. (He also happened to be the father of author Ursula K LeGuin.)

Krober was also well-known for his work with a man called, Ishi, said to be the lone surviving member of the Yahi tribe in Northern California. Krober’s wife, Theodora Krober, authored a book entitled, Ishi – The Last of His Tribe, which was part of the curriculum for California’s school children in the 1960s.

In 2021, UC Berkeley stated that AL Krober, “the founder of the study of anthropology in the American West — is a powerful symbol that continues to evoke exclusion and erasure for Native Americans.” The building known as Krober Hall was then unnamed.

Once considered the authority on the indigenous people of California and their societies, Krober wrote Basket Designs of the Mission Indians of California, published by the Smithsonian Museum in 1922.  The book includes information about design elements and the use of baskets, as well as photographs of fine examples of the art.

He also wrote the Handbook of California Indians, published by the Smithsonian Museum in 1925.

For additional information about the Chumash, you may also visit the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum website, here.

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